Sitting in at a Sofar Sounds show
“Hey, you guys want to come to my show this Thursday? I can put you on the list.”
This was the secret password to score entry into a Sofar Sounds secret show, which I attended last night at a University of Iceland dorm with some fellow Grapevine interns. Sofar Sounds is a music discovery community in the form of a secret club that puts on small, intimate shows all over the world. They’re invite only and usually held in the living room of someone who has volunteered to host, sort of like Airbnb for performances. Getting to this performance felt like a clandestine rendezvous, since all we had to go on was an email from our friend, one of the performers that night. We had the number of the dorm building, but that was it. No one was waiting at the door to let people in and there was no one to call, so we just had to wait in the lobby until a student happened to leave and open the door for us. We hustled up the stairs, following the sound of music, took our shoes off and got inside in time to see the rest of Þausk’s set.
A few dozen people are crammed comfortably into the kitchen area of the second floor, listening to the easygoing standard rock jams of Þausk. They’re a typical three piece rock group with a funky twang to some of their songs, perfect for listening to while chilling out in someone else’s living room. They finish their last song, and an organiser reminds us that there was still ice cream if anyone wants some before the next act. I jump up and got some, because who says no to free ice cream? Ísgerðin has brought in four tubs, so I help myself to a few flavours. This isn’t an ice cream review, but I must say, I have not been disappointed in any ice cream I’ve had in Iceland yet.
Next on is our friend Holden, representing as one third of his band Del Water Gap. He takes the stage, or area up in the front with no people as it were, with his guitar and nothing else. His songs are folksy and honest, invariably about girls and emotional turmoil. In between his songs he re-tunes his guitar and chats with the audience in an easy way. His spoken voice is soft in comparison to his singing, which is like a more accessible version of The Tallest Man On Earth. Holden’s keening and crooning emphasises the heartfelt lyrics in such a way that even I empathise with him, despite my distaste for all things heartfelt. His five songs are moody and perfect for the darkening evening.
One of the organisers announces there’s a ten minute break before Una Stef goes on. I watch as a lot of chairs get moved up to the front, along with a massive double bass, a floor drum and guitar. Then Una Stef and her band Una Stef move on up and take their seats. Una says that she won’t talk too much and just start singing, because she’s been told that she talks far too much. She then proceeds to talk a whole lot and doesn’t stop until her sister on the cello gives her a meaningful look. When she does start to sing, without a microphone, I am blown away. She isn’t called the Alicia Keys of Iceland for nothing. Her voice is powerful and she belts in the best way. They do a cover of Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” which fills the air with joy as everyone who has any taste in music sings along to the chorus.
Last up is Svavar Knútur, musician extraordinaire. He’s technically a singer/songwriter but without any of the wishy washy sadsack stereotypical attributes that go along with that label. He’s funny and has a gorgeous voice and can play both the guitar and ukulele fantastically. He’s a happy guy who sings about depression and apocalyptic wastelands, among other things, in a way that makes you laugh and sigh at the beauty all at the same time. Listening to Svavar is the best way to end the night.
None of these four musical acts is unknown, and some of them are quite well known. They all have very different sounds. The point of Sofar Sounds, it seems, is not to gather together any specific group of musicians to play for their secret shows, but to curate a mix of musicians who are simply really, really good.